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Back to the Bible - Revisiting the Old Testament
The usual order of reading the Old Testament of course is to begin with Genesis. However Rabbi Sandmel says that his years of teaching at Hebrew Union College taught him that it is better to begin with the books that were written first. The events related in the Torah/Pentateuch and other prose history books that tell the story of how ancient Israel came to be occurred before the time of the Prophets. But most of the books in the "Prophets" section of the Tanak were written in their final form first, before the books that precede them in the established sequence of the OT. The books which now come first in the canon are actually compilations by later editors who wove together material from various early sources that are no longer extant. Given the complexity of issues involved in the composition of those books, Sandmel recommends beginning a critical reading of the Hebrew scriptures with the book of Amos which is generally regarded as the earliest written Old Testament book. I am going to try to follow Sandmel’s recommendation and see if that makes things easier. It will also mean starting off with something I don’t know very well. Growing up attending church school and Sabbath School, reading children’s versions of biblical stories I repeatedly encountered Bible stories from the Garden of Eden through King David. I knew the stories of Daniel, Esther and Ruth very well. And often heard Psalms read aloud. But, apart from an occasional text cited in a sermon or some religious publication, the books to be found towards the end of the OT were pretty much unknown territory.
Amos is the earliest extended record of the words of a prophet. As is the case with most of the oldest writings in the Bible, it is written as poetry. Some scholars have suggested that poetry, which lends itself well to oral transmission and is less easily altered than prose, is the earliest form of written composition. Of course it is very difficult if not impossible to translate poetry which depends on rhyme and meter into another language and preserve the nuance of the original. OT Hebrew is full of puns and other kinds of wordplay which cannot be carried over into another language. So what we have in an English version of the OT, no matter how well done, is only part of what is there in the Hebrew.
First a little history is needed to establish the context of Amos. After the death of Solomon the kingdom established by David split into the northern kingdom of Israel with its capital in Samaria and the southern kingdom of Judah where Jerusalem was the capital. For much of their history both kingdoms were threatened by more powerful nations. According to the book of Amos, in the middle of the eighth century BCE (in recognition of the fact that the OT is Jewish rather than Christian in origin I am using BCE - “Before the Common Era” - rather than BC - “Before Christ”), "two years before the earthquake," a self-described “herdsman and dresser of sycamore trees” from the southern kingdom who claimed to have been given a message from Yahve (rendered as “the Lord” in most English translations - I will use the two designations for the Israelite deity interchangeably) disrupted worship at the royal sanctuary/holy place of Bethel in Israel. The resident priest reported him to the king as a threat to the kingdom and told him to go back to Judah with his prophecies. That man was Amos.
Amos, like the other minor Prophets is a short book. Its nine chapters consist of a poetic account of what Amos said at Bethel along with a brief telling of his run-in with the Bethel priest. In a series of "Thus says the Lord" verses Amos forecasts the ruin for their misdeeds of several neighboring nations, including Judah, before proclaiming a similar fate for Israel. Remarkably Amos’ condemnation is not for worshipping deities other than Yahve, forsaking the ritual duties of the established cult of Yahve, etc. as might be expected. Instead Amos' concern is social justice. He denounces the privileged class of Israel "who oppress the poor, who crush the needy" while living in luxury. Wealthy and greedy women are addressed as “cows” who the enemies of Israel will “take away with hooks” (4:1-2).
Far from urging more participation in established worship rituals, Amos reports Yahve as saying: "I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and cereal offerings, I will not accept them, and the peace offerings of your fatted beasts I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen” (5:21-23) A modern day equivalent might be condemnation of wealthy churches and clergy who proclaim their piety while doing nothing to help the less fortunate. This rejection of ritual worship is followed by the injunction to "Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (5:24), a text made famous by Martin Luther King Jr. which a footnote in the Oxford Bible states "expresses the heart of Amos' preaching.”
Most of Amos runs along the lines of "Woe to those who are at ease in Zion" and forecasts a “Day of the Lord” on which "I (God) will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in board daylight. I will turn your feasts into mourning, and all your songs into lamentation” (8:9-10) There will be nowhere to hide from divine wrath. But following declarations of God’s intention to destroy Israel "from the surface of the ground" are verses which seem to take back the threat.
After all the dire prophecies of Israel’s fate Amos concludes on a hopeful note: "I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel, and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them . . . I shall plant them upon their land, and they shall never again be plunked up out of the land which I have given them” (9:14-15). Many scholars regard this, along with similar passages, as a later addition intended to lessen the overall negative tone of Amos. However that may be, the eventual fate of Israel seems to fit the predictions of disaster: conquered by Assyria in the century after Amos, its people were exiled and scattered into distant territories ruled by Assyria to disappear from history. The “promised land” given to Israel by Yahve was re-settled by Assyrian captives from other places. Ancient Israel became the legendary “Ten Lost Tribes.”
Hosea lived somewhat after Amos. Like Amos he preached in the northern kingdom of Israel, but unlike Amos he was a native there. It was a time of great peril with Israel caught between two powerful kingdoms vying for regional dominance. Pressed from the east by Assyria and from the west by Egypt, Israel’s kings tried to play one off against the other as the nation descended into ongoing crisises which would end with the Assyrian conquest.
The Hebrew text of Hosea is, as Sandmel puts it, “in very bad shape. . . . about one third of the individual verses defy easy translation unless the translator resorts to drastic conjectural emendations. . . . In chapter after chapter, two or three intelligible verses are followed by passages beyond comprehension. The extant translations of Hosea own a greater debt to the ingenuity of the translators than to the original Hebrew.”
Hosea’s message is, unlike that of Amos, unconcerned with social justice but is rather an extended denunciation of Israel’s infidelity to Yahve. Worship of Baal was prevalent and Hosea's attacks on it are a rich source of details about Baal cult ritual.
Hosea is perhaps best known for the rather shocking use of an unfaithful wife as a metaphor for Israel’s unfaithfulness to its God. (Maybe that is why I didn’t hear much about Hosea in my childhood religious indoctrination!) It is uncertain whether Yahve’s command to Hosea, “Go, take to yourself a wife of harlotry and have children by harlotry” (1:2) is to be taken literally or symbolically. That their children are named “Jezreel” (the site of a bloody incident involving the killing of Queen Jezebel and her sons), “Not Pitied,” and “Not My People” would seem to indicate a symbolic nature although something literal can of course also be symbolic, especially in ancient literature where the two may be one and the same. And biblical prophets are recorded as having done some very strange things!
Hosea’s bitterness over the unfaithfulness of his wife with threats to “strip her naked and make her as in the day she was born,” (which was among the punishments for an adulterous woman) parallels Yahve’s threats to punish Israel for her unfaithfulness to him. There are references to ritual marriage to Baal which involved cult prostitutes. Israel has joined herself with Baal and forsaken her spouse, Yahve: “I will punish her for the feast days of the Baals when she burned incense to them and decked herself with her ring and jewelry, and went after her lovers, and forgot me, says the Lord” (2:13).
After a chapter detailing the unfaithfulness of his wife/Israel, Hosea is told to “Go again, love a woman who loves someone else, and who is adulterous; even as Yahve loves the people of Israel, though they turn to other gods and love cakes of raisins” (3:1) (“cakes of raisins” were involved in Baal cult rituals). The chapter containing this injunction is very short and may be missing something that would better explain its connection to the first account of Hosea’s marriage. It may be that it is another version of the story of the same problematic marriage. In any case this time Hosea and his wife are to live together “for many days” with her no longer “playing the harlot” and no sex in the marriage. So too Israel will dwell many days without a leader or direction. But “afterward the children of Israel shall return and seek the Lord their God; and they shall come in fear to the Lord and to his goodness in the latter days” (3:5). This is the message of Hosea that became stardard for the pre-exilic prophets: Israel must suffer for her unfaithfulness but will ultimately return to Yahve and his goodness which will again bless the restored nation.
The rest of the book details the sins and punishment of unfaithful Israel before ending with a promise of redemption in the final chapter. As with Amos, some scholars believe the last chapter is a later addition intended to provide hope after the dire threats of the rest of the book. But regardless, it is, as Sandmel says, “a superlative piece of religious poetry” which is read in synagogue on the Sabbath of Repentance which comes between Rosh Hashona and Yom Kippur:
“Return O Israel to the Lord your God for you have stumbled because of your iniquity. . . . I will heal their faithlessness; I will love them freely. . . . They shall return and dwell beneath my shadow, they shall flourish as a garden, they shall blossom as a vine” (14:1, 4, 7).
This reminds me of a service of forgiveness that the Oakland Unitarian-Universalist Church used to do every year during Jewish High Holy Days (the minister was Jewish). The congregation would pair off, each couple facing one another and read in unison a text asking and granting forgiveness. It was always very moving.
© 2021 James Moyers